HERE in the Highlands we are living in "the land of beasties", according to author Paul Finch.
Not just the beasties naturalists would recognise, but beasts more supernatural or mysterious in nature, of whom Nessie is just the most famous example — kelpies, selkies and the one-legged and feathered fachen, are just some of the strange beings from Highland myth and legend.
So if you are editing a series of horror tales from around the British Isles and inspired by each region’s distinctive folklore — as Finch is — a volume dedicated to stories from the Highlands is an obvious inclusion.
Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands is the latest in the Terror Tales series published by Gray friar Press and edited by former policeman Finch, whose own writing career stretches from episodes of The Bill and Doctor Who audio dramas to his own horror stories and series of thrillers about Detective Sergeant Mark "Heck" Heckenburg.
An acknowledged inspiration for his own Terror Tales books is the late ghost writer Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes’s Tales of Terror series, which includes collections of horror tales from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland. Interspersed among the fictional tales were snippets of authentic folklore from each area, an approach that made an impression on the young Finch.
"I remember thinking: I must do something like that when I’m older. Many, many years have passed, but I’m in such a position now as to be able to acquire the services of some very good writers," he said.
"I don’t think Ron did more than a dozen of these books. We have a much bigger plan, but the Highlands was always going to be a stopping off point.
"It had to be. I want to cover the whole country, but I’ve also been up to the Highlands a few times and I love it. Not just the landscape, but the history and the folklore. The Highlands probably have some of the scariest folklore in the British Isles in terms of the sheer preponderance of ghost stories and tales of monsters. Not just loch monsters, but all kinds of mythological monsters."
This is the eighth volume in a series which has previously visited London, East Anglia, Yorkshire and the Lake District, but the Highlands were always a priority.
"Inevitably, when you get an area that is extensively rural, there seems to be a bit more folklore," he said.
"I’m not trying to say these places are the way they are presented in Hammer horror movies, but the past seems to be a little more recent in these remote places. The Highlands have that advantage of having some very wild areas — and great weather for scary stories."
Finch has made use of the Highlands’ spooky atmosphere himself in his horror novel Cape Wrath, where a team of archaeologists uncover ancient evil on an island off the Sutherland coast, but prefers not to include his own stories in his Terror Tales anthologies unless there is a gap to fill.
Instead, he provides the folk tales between each of the original stories, among the story of the witch of Auldearn, the bloody clan murders behind the Well of The Seven Heads at Loch Oich and Nessie and her loch monster sisters.
"The internet is a great guide," he said.
"If you Google ‘Highland mythology’ you will get umpteen stories, so you’re never short of material, The problem is what to leave out. I try to vary things as much as possible. I could have done 15 ghost stories, but that would be samey. So we have the obvious ghost stories like Glamis Castle and Culloden, of course, but we also have the lake monster section and the trows of Shetland. It’s great fun."
Of all the legends he uncovered, the one Finch found most interesting related to the fin-folk of the Orkney island of Eynhallow.
"The thing that amazed me is that they have been linked to disappearances as recently as the 1990s," Finch said.
"When you go back to the 17th century with a story, it’s easy to take it with a pinch of salt. Not so much when it’s almost today.
"The other one that really stood out was the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers on the Flannan Isles and again it is well within the modern isles."
Much as it would have welcome to use just Highland based writers, Finch said that would have been impractical. Instead contributors, who include a number of well known horror writers such as William Meikle and fellow Scot Johnny Mains, were asked to write stories with a Highland feel.
"They couldn’t just be a story that happens to be set in the Highlands, and I’m happy to say they all delivered," Finch said.
And Finch admitted that he would not rule out a Highland setting for one of his own books in the future.
"I love the wild corners of our islands," he said.
"I remember visiting Loch Ness as a child and the weather could not have been more appropriate. You could easily believe something strange was living there in that dark, swirling water. I would go back there at the drop of a hat."
• Terror Tales of The Scottish Highlands, edited by Paul Finch, is published by Gary Friar Press.
Paul Finch (from Terror Tales of The Scottish Highlands)
IT is a common misconception that the Scottish Highlands are an ancient Celtic homeland, formerly the realm of one people with one society, one culture and one religion. The truth is much more complex. The Scottish nation is a conglomeration of many races and creeds: the Picts; the Gaels; the Cumbrian Britons; and the Vikings — and even that list does not account for the unknown Stone Age people who occupied northern Britain before the Celts even arrived and almost certainly mingled and intermarried with them.
The upshot of all this is that native Scottish mythology, particularly in the Highlands where old beliefs and traditions died hard, is rich, diverse and multi-layered.
Hence the Highlands’ vast array of terrifying creatures. Here is a relatively small sample:
• The Fachen is a feathered, one-legged monstrosity so hideous to look upon that it kills its victims through shock.
• The Bean-Nigh is a classic Celtic entity and a clear derivation from the Irish banshee. Either an ugly hag or a beautiful girl, she will respond to politeness and may answer questions, but that won’t necessarily save you.
• The Pech are described as a subterranean tribe of tough, hairy gnomes who are always hostile to man.
• The Glaistig is a notorious female vampire, superficially beautiful, she will always wear a long gown to conceal her goat-like legs and hoofed feet. Having enticed a male victim, she will kill him viciously and then drain his blood.
• The Cù-Sìth, or faerie dog appears as a gigantic hound with shaggy green fur. If it commences baying, anyone within earshot must block their ears immediately — if they fail, and hear more than three calls by the Cù- Sìth, their imminent death is certain.
• The Bodach are variously described as the souls of warriors killed in battle or evil spirits who have never known God. Either way, they are invisible, predatory and rumoured to snatch misbehaving children.
• Of course, no pantheon of Celtic cryptids would be complete without a dragon or two, and though these regal beasts are strangely rare in Highland myth, they are not completely absent. For example, the Stoor Worm was a sea-dragon who lived off the Orkneys, and who was so ferocious that the only way to placate it was by offering human sacrifices.
Another oceanic monster is Seonaidh, a vast undersea presence just off the Isle of Lewis, and constantly in demand of sacrifice, though in this case barrels of ale would suffice.
• The most famous Highland water monster of all is surely the Kelpie, or water-horse. Irredeemably evil, the shape-shifting Kelpie lures humans to a horrible death, usually by posing as a fine stallion. Another of his abilities was to assume the guise of a desirable young woman or man, and thus draw victims to their doom by sinful seduction.
The Kelpie has various cousins, which if anything have even worse reputations. The Each-Uisige was a hybrid man/horse mainly associated with deep-water lochs, one of which was allegedly snared on the Isle of Raasay after supposedly accounting for several victims. Likewise, the Nuckelavee is a water-horse, but he is skinless, one-eyed and sometimes two-headed.
A pantheon of monsters then, but as stated earlier, this is only scratching the surface. The Scottish Highlands are without doubt the land of beasties.